How to create a citizens’ assembly to tackle climate change?

Here are some practical steps and suggestions for revitalizing democracy in the country offering citizens the opportunity to express their views and take action against climate change impacts.

Photo: Pixabay

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 8 min.

Have you ever heard of the so-called “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome”? In simple terms, it refers to the general malaise experienced by the public towards elective, representative democracies. Citizens around the world lack enthusiasm and passion for civic polity due to a variety of reasons, from ineffective politics unable to meet the challenges of our times to uninspiring and unprepared full-time politicians.

Corruption, mismanagement, and life pressures all together compound the overall dissatisfaction felt by the people towards politics. It is a global phenomenon affecting most democracies around the world.

Recently here in Nepal, we witnessed how such feelings of frustration and alienation can bring people to bold changes in the form of electing independent candidates locally.  Deliberative practices are a way, a remedy to strengthen the role of citizens in the decision-making. There is now enough literature about it and a variety of experiences throughout the world.

In this piece, I do not provide an academic, theoretical overview of all the different facets that deliberative democracy can take. Rather it should be seen as a sequel to the op-ed I wrote last week on the occasion of World Environment Day.

The focus of that piece was the idea of setting up climate assemblies, and forums where citizens can participate to discuss and deliberate about what needs to be done in order to tackle climate change.

Newly elected mayors might find it intriguing to think about setting up such types of mechanisms that could be also activated for decision-making across the entire policy spectrum, not just climate change. That’s why I will generally explain the process.

Setting the goal

Normally the most mainstream experiences of deliberative democracies are complementary to the work of elected officials the most fulfilling and meaningful of them, from the perspective of the participants, are those who offer them real decision-making power.

Citizens come together to deliberate and then have the power of taking decisions, ideally through consensus but more realistically speaking by voting on options that have been first presented by experts and then are discussed collectively.

Yet in most cases, what is ideal is still a rarity and therefore, the experiences of deliberation are normally intended to offer only options and recommendations to the elected representatives. It means that the end result of this type of deliberative process isn’t binding.

To start with, this second less “radical” option is the more doable in a context like Nepal as it will be much easier to obtain the “buy-in” from the Mayors and cities’ executive councils or the federal government. In more practical terms, it would also be much easier to be carried out as there is no need for any change in the local or national regulative framework.

How to start?

There are two ways. One is more bottom-up while the other is the opposite, taking legitimacy from the top.  Both can work and actually can converge together. In the former case, imagine local non-state actors, including schools, facilitating dialogue in a constructed way. Participants agree to be involved in a structured process of learning and discussion.

The knowledge creation aspect is essential, as well as the capacity to set aside preconceived ideas that all of us hold and be ready to engage in a respectful discussion with people who might have different views and opinions. In this first scenario, the organizers present or frame a problem or an issue to be resolved. It is very important to do this in a very neutral and unbiased way. Then experts are invited to share their views and also offer possible solutions.  Each idea being presented is debated and participants themselves will add their own suggestions and propositions through a well-defined process.

If the members are few, then consensus might even be achievable while, if their number is higher, then voting will be held based on different recommendations formulated throughout the process of discussion.

We can start in a simple way through small group deliberations at micro levels without forgetting many of the traditional deliberative practices.

In the end, the final decisions can be officially presented to the elected representatives in a public ceremony though here there is no leverage on the elected officials to act upon them.

This is not the case with the second modality—where the elected authority steps in and supports a deliberative process under the condition of not controlling or guiding it directly or through proxies like their parties’ members or their personal confidantes.

The formal endorsement can come in terms of financial support to the entire initiative or simply a political pledge (that might or might not be fulfilled, a possibility that must always be taken into consideration) to implement the decisions stemming from the deliberative process.

This approach, while not perfect, can be impactful because it gives political power to the deliberations. Most of the experiences at local and national levels of deliberations happen with such political “endorsement”.

It can be the mayor supporting the initiative or it can be the local council or the national parliament or the head of the provincial government or even the head of the national executive. As mentioned, such an option is only workable with certain “guardrails”.

In order to avoid such political support turning into a tokenistic exercise of deliberations, it is essential that the entire process is run by a third party, a civil society organization or a think tank, for example, that can enable the initiative in an impartial fashion.

All the rules must be sorted out from how to involve the citizens to the manners in which experts’ presentations are carried out to the ways in which deliberations are held. Every single detail must be spelled out and all the participants must be clear and agree on them.

Ultimately it is a commitment on their part, so it is very important to have them formally agree to embrace the approach with all its details.

Scope and duration

There is no single blueprint. It really depends on the topic being discussed but the timeframe must allow the participants to get deep into an issue and it must allow enough time for discussions and then the consequent deliberations.

Most of the initiatives undertaken around the world are ad hoc mechanisms: there is a particular issue to be dealt with or several of them linked to each other and therefore the participants meet and discuss with a clear and limited mandate or terms of reference, including a very precise timeline.

Once the deliberations are over, the mechanism gets automatically disbanded.

I actually prefer the ambitious idea of semi-permanent mechanisms that perhaps could be aligned, in terms of their life span, with the length of the mandate of the elected officials.

Imagine the election of a new mayor and the city’s executive council. Soon after their elections are over, a new administration sets in motion the process of creating a citizens’ assemblies that will last till the next election.  In such a case, the members would discuss and deliberate on whatever issues affecting their locality.

There is no doubt that a deliberative process takes time and it is a commitment and not many citizens might be able to be in a position to be part of it because of their life circumstances. This point opens the very important issue of how participants are selected.

Selection of the participants

It is foreseeable that only a few people might be spontaneously interested to join a deliberative exercise. This is a factor even truer in a context like Nepal where there is still a considerable portion of the population struggling to make ends meet.

Moreover, we should not forget that one of the essential goals of deliberative democracy is to allow a level playing field among the participants in the sense that every citizen, regardless of their income or family status, should be allowed to participate. This is actually the whole point of deliberative practices, bringing in, and involving citizens from different walks of life who can learn from each other and understand, learn a different perspective.

If I belong to the upper class, I might come to better understand the views of a peer of mine coming from a lower-income status, someone from whom I buy my daily fruits but with whom I do not dialogue.

This is not an academic paper and there is a lot of information and material on how to conduct an inclusive and fully representative selection of participants for deliberative exercises but simplifying a lot here, the entire selection process starts with a sortition process, basically through a random lot.

Obviously, it can also start only with volunteers, people genuinely interested to provide ideas and suggestions based on their expertise and genuine passion but a real deliberative process should also bring in persons who normally would not show importance to such exercises.

If you think about this, again this is the whole point of deliberative democracy, creating interest in a topic among those not at all engaged in it. This is, after all, the antidote to the disillusion and disenchantment of the “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome” and the solution is to involve people, enabling them to learn about a topic and then empowering them to express their agency by deliberating over it.

That’s why, as discussed earlier, the learning part of the process is essential because it allows everyone, including those without particular knowledge of the issue, to learn about it and have a say.

In order to avoid such political support turning into a tokenistic exercise of deliberations, it is essential that the entire process is run by a third party, a civil society organization, or a think tank.

Those most interested and knowledgeable about the topic discussed could be part of the group of persons, the so-called experts, providing information and suggestions, offering technical information and ideas that then the participants will deliberate on.  Because choosing participants by lottery might not be representative of the entire population, quota sampling techniques can be used to ensure that every group is going to be proportionally represented in the exercise.

In the case of a citizens’ assembly active throughout the mandate of a mayor, the case I briefly espoused earlier, each year, new members could be induced turn by turn, replacing their peers at the end of a one-year mandate. It could be a way that we would avoid the risk of creating another “exclusive” group of politicians. 

Can the poor participate?

Participants from lower social and economic status might not able to “afford” the required time. In many Western countries, allowances are paid for the participants to attend all the sessions but I am afraid that this might create an incentive for the people to attend is not a genuine and sincere spirit. We know by experience that a lot of people attend programs just for the sake of their allowances. As sustainability and ownership of the process are key, such practices should be avoided at any cost.

I personally believe that there are ways for people, even from the bottom of society, to give time if they really have an opportunity to express their voice and the process gives them dignity and empowerment. As we know, it is possible.

Otherwise, a very minimal, symbolic allowance could be provided only to those who legitimately claim the need for it. The size of such financial support should not be itself the main driver or incentive that brings them in.

Role of schools and media

Learning institutions can play a big role. They could even initiate a deliberative process or enable it by hosting it. From the curriculum’s perspective, students can learn about civic engagement and the best tool to put it into action—the deliberative democracy.

Imagine setting up mini-assemblies at the school level where students gather to discuss topics closer to them. Their deliberations could be taken not only as inputs for policymakers but as real policy-making proposals on their own. Obviously, we should not forget the role that media can play. It is indispensable.

They can give visibility and highlight the different phases of the process, helping generate stronger interest in the issue being deliberated and, very importantly, creating a bridge between the rest of the population and those involved in the deliberations.  As consequence, localized events of deliberations can help generate debates at the national level.

What are we waiting for?

This essay represents a simplified blueprint of how elected officials can initiate deliberative practices in the country.  It is true that such a way of doing democracy requires time and preparation but it is an effort worth considering. Before starting even planning such exercises, there will be the need of learning and understanding different experiences of deliberative democracy around the world.

We do not need to copy and paste from them but a good knowledge of what worked and what did not will help local stakeholders find their own approach that is tailor-made to their unique circumstances.

We can start in a simple way through small group deliberations at micro levels without forgetting many of the traditional deliberative practices that used to be instilled in the local fabric throughout the country.

Then with more experience and more support available, we can try more ambitious deliberative exercises. David Van Reybrouck, an expert on deliberation, a founder of the G1000 Citizens’ Summit, one of the biggest and boldest initiatives of citizens ‘deliberations in Europe, concludes his book Against Elections, The Case for Democracy, in the frankest terms: “We must decolonize democracy. We must democratize democracy. Once again: what are we waiting for?”

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Opinions expressed are personal.

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